Belfast Telegraph

SDLP's Mark H Durkan apologises over 'elephant in the womb' abortion debate joke

By Lesley Houston and Jonny Bell

Stormont minister Mark H Durkan has apologised for making a crass remark on the controversial subject of abortion at an event aimed at female voters.

Environment Minister and Foyle MLA Mark H Durkan was on a panel at a women's event when he stunned his audience into silence after being asked a question about abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality (FFA).

According to witnesses, Mr Durkan opened his response with the comment: "Now to talk about the elephant in the room - or, the elephant in the womb."

Speaking on BBC Radio on Thursday morning, he apologised.

He said: "I made a clumsily attempt to bring a bit of levity to a very serious discussion that was ill-judged and I apologise for any upset caused."

He also said he was sorry that the comments had "overshadowed" the event.

Other panellists at the launch of the Women's Manifesto for the 2016 Assembly elections in Londonderry's Holywell Trust conceded he intended his remark to be humorous.

Earlier this week, Mr Durkan was officially crowned Stormont's biggest joker - but last night's remark during a serious debate appears to have gone down like a lead balloon.

An audience of up to 80 women were present, as well as a group of young teenage girls from a local secondary school.

DUP councillor Hilary McClintock last night said she had heard the gaffe.

She said Mr Durkan had been taking his turn to address the subject of FFA - which campaigners believe warrants new abortion legislation for Northern Ireland - when he began with an opening gambit branded "disrespectful" on social media last night.

"He thought he was being funny - but it wasn't funny," Mrs McClintock said.

"It was totally out of order and very inappropriate."

She said it wasn't uttered in a private aside to one person but was addressed before the whole audience. "It was very loud," she added. "He said it to the whole room and it didn't go down particularly well.

"There was a moment of shocked silence and a few comments from the other people.

"It was rather a crass remark."

Mrs McClintock said Derry City mayor, Sinn Fein's Elisha McCallion, chastised Mr Durkan, but declined to repeat what she said.

UUP Foyle candidate Julia Kee described the remark as "disgusting". "It was probably the most heinous comment I've heard," she said.

The Belfast Telegraph made several attempts to contact Mr Durkan and the SDLP for comment last night. No statement was issued.

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